by Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
To forgive someone is the hardest work we do… Not forgiving makes you toxic. And then you really have very little to offer your family or the world or your audience, because you’re faking it. Anne Lamott
The Lord’s Prayer: Forgiveness
One of the main reasons I wanted to use the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer is that debts and debtors does not make sense to most of us. Tanya and I still owe some money on our house and I’d be happy for the bank to forgive that debt, but I’m not expecting that to happen. If you grew up Methodist or Roman Catholic you probably used “trespasses” rather than “debts.” When was the last time you walked on someone’s property illegally? Being in debt or trespassing isn’t a big deal, but sin is a problem that we all have to deal with. “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
A seminary professor told about his son’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. He was obviously from the “trespass” tradition. His son prayed the Lord’s Prayer like this: “Forgive us our trashbaskets as we forgive those who trash can against us.” We laugh at that wording but I sense that this boy was on to something. What needs to be forgiven is the trash and garbage of our lives. People have dumped trash into our lives and we need to forgive them. In the same way, the ugliness of what we have done needs to be thrown out. We need to be forgiven. Let me share with you four comments about this prayer – forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
First, if you have been here the last several weeks you may have noticed that I added two extra verses on to the end of our New Testament lesson. The Lord’s Prayer is in Matthew 6, verses 9-13. Today I also read verses 14-15, in which Jesus expands on the topic of forgiveness. Notice that he does not say anything extra about praising God in heaven, or God’s kingdom and following God’s will, or asking for bread or about temptation. Yet he does expand on the topic of forgiveness.
Jesus knew that forgiveness was central to the spiritual journey. Forgiveness is at the core of the Christian faith; being forgiven and forgiving other people. Jesus knew that to have a healthy relationship with God we need to be forgiven and we need to forgive others.
He also knew how hard forgiveness is. In theory, everyone agrees with forgiveness and it sounds wonderful, until you actually need to forgive someone. One author called forgiveness “love’s hardest work.” I have a four week Sunday school class on forgiveness that I’ve taught several times. Every time I teach it I’ve had some people who come to the first class but refuse to come back. One lady actually walked out in the middle of the first class. I talked with all these people later and every one of them said that forgiveness was just too hard. Jesus knew how hard it was, so he put extra emphasis on forgiveness.
For my second comment, let me try to define forgiveness, so that we are working from the same definition. There are some misconceptions about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same thing as avoiding conflict. We live in a culture that is afraid of anger. It’s scary and we don’t know what to do with it. When something hurts us and we feel angry there is a tendency to pretend that we aren’t angry. “It’s no big deal. I forgive them.” We bury our anger but it eventually comes out in some way that is not healthy or helpful. We haven’t really forgiven. Forgiveness is not avoiding conflict, but facing it without allowing the anger and hurt to determine how we act.
Forgiveness is also not the same thing as forgetting. There is a story that preachers often use to illustrate forgiveness. I’ve heard it in several sermons in various forms, but it goes something like this. A woman claims to have conversations with God. She says that God comes to her and they talk. People are skeptical about this idea, including her pastor. Her pastor asks her to talk to God about the sin he committed two weeks earlier. She says “Okay.” A week later she comes back and tells her pastor that she has had another conversation with God. The pastor asks her what God said about his sin, and the woman tells him that God didn’t remember it.
This illustration is intended to show us that God forgives our sins, yet I have always had a hard time with this story. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, how could God forget something. God isn’t stupid or absent minded. Rather than saying God forgets our sins, I think it is better to say God treats us as if he had forgotten.
So here is my definition: Forgiveness is choosing not to use the memory of being hurt against the person who hurt you. Forgiveness is facing the reality of what the other person has done to you, but deciding that your relationship with that person is more important than the hurt and anger you feel. Forgiveness is saying that in spite of what you have done, I still want a relationship with you.
The third comment about forgiveness is that this prayer only makes sense when we admit our own sinfulness. Jesus assumes that all of us are sinners who need to be forgiven. This is an idea that seems to have been lost. I doubt that anyone would claim to be perfect, yet I also have a sense that most of us don’t really think of ourselves as miserable sinners. Over the past fifty years or so the Christian message has changed. It used to be “We are sinners who need to be forgiven.” In our day we have psychologized the gospel so that now the basic Christian message is “We are hurting people who need comfort. We are lonely people who need a relationship.” I’ll be the first to admit that I have probably preached more sermons about how God loves us and meets our needs than I have about how God forgives us because we are sinners.
In 1960 Adolph Eichmann was captured. He was taken to Israel and put on trial for his part in the Holocaust of World War II. Prosecutors brought a variety of concentration camp prisoners as witnesses. One of them was Yehiel Dinur, who had survived Auschwitz.
On the day that he was to testify, Dinur entered the courtroom and stared at Eichmann as he sat behind the bulletproof glass. Here was the man who had murdered his family and friends. He had tortured and massacred millions of other Jews. The courtroom grew silent as these two men stared at each other. Then something unexpected happened. Yehiel Dinur began to cry. He sobbed and collapsed to the floor.
In 1983 Mike Wallace interviewed Dinur for 60 Minutes. Wallace asked him what happened in the courtroom. “Were you overcome with hatred? Did the terrible memories overwhelm you? Were you overcome by the evil on the man’s face?” Dinur said “No.” It wasn’t any of that. He expected to look at Eichmann and see the personification of evil. But when he saw Eichmann he saw an ordinary man. Dinur said “I was afraid about myself. I saw that I am capable of doing this exact same thing. Eichmann is in all of us.”
Friends, all of us are sinners. We have all turned away from God. We have all done terrible things to hurt other people. Any time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we admit our sinfulness and our need to be forgiven.
The fourth comment about this prayer focuses on one little word – “as.” “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” This suggests that the forgiveness we receive is connected to the forgiveness we give. The question is how they are related.
At first glance, it seems as if forgiving others is a condition of our being forgiven. If we forgive others God has to forgive us. If we don’t forgive others God won’t forgive us. The problem with that idea is that it denies grace. In essence it says, “We earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others.” Yet the Christian message is that God freely chooses to forgive us. We don’t deserve it.
Let me offer you another way to think about this. Rather than saying “If we don’t forgive others God won’t forgive us,” it makes more sense to say, “If we don’t forgive God can’t forgive us.” Or even better, “If we don’t forgive others we are not able to receive the forgiveness that God offers to us.” If we cling to our desire for revenge we will be so tied up in knots that we will miss God’s grace.
Let me illustrate this. Imagine that you are holding this stability ball. Don’t let go of the ball. Use both hands and hold on tightly. Someone tosses some candy to you, or maybe it’s silver dollars or something even more valuable. But you still have to hold on to this ball. How much candy or silver dollars are you likely to be able to catch. If you are good or lucky you might catch a few pieces, but that big red ball will keep you from catching most of the candy. If you let go of the ball you could probably catch a whole lot more.
This ball represents what someone did to you. The bright red represents your hatred and desire to get revenge. It burns inside of you. As long as you hang on to your hatred and desire for revenge you are going to find it very hard to receive the forgiveness and love that God sends to you. It’s not so much that God won’t forgive you as it is that you can’t receive it. Your hatred gets in the way.
Forgiveness is not a bargain we make with God. It is a gift that God gives to us, a gift that makes it possible for us to forgive others. As Max Lucado said it, “Forgiving others allows us to see how God has forgiven us. The dynamic of giving grace is the key to understanding grace, for it is when we forgive others that we begin to feel what God feels.”
Friends, the fact that you are alive means that you have been and will continue to be hurt by other people. And it means that you have and will continue to hurt other people. We all need to give and receive forgiveness. It is hard work. It takes time. Forgiveness is risky, yet forgiving is worth the risk because it is the only way we will experience the forgiveness that God offers to us. And so we pray, “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Amen.